We all have our spending weaknesses, whether it’s books, board games, or gourmet foods. Photo: Paul FalardeauAs proud as I am of our positive financial progress over the last
several years, there are still big areas of my life where I don’t always
make the smartest spending choices. Even with all of the mental
preparation and good choices that I do make, there are still times when I
will choose to open my wallet when, in a more rational moment, I can
see that decision as very foolish and costly. Such choices take me away from my goals and rarely buy me anything valuable or lasting in return.
I find that, as I dig through my credit card statements and bank
statements and other receipts, almost all of my poor spending choices
boil down to one of five different areas. These five areas account for
virtually all of my spending mistakes.
Problem Area #1: The Hobbies of My FriendsWhenever a close friend of mine gets into a hobby, I am naturally
pulled into some level of interest in that hobby as well. My logic there
is simple: if a friend of mine enjoys this, then I will probably enjoy
Here’s one recent example: one of my friends got into the hobby of
collecting pocket notebooks. Sure, it seems like a strange little hobby,
but there are some rare ones out there that are worth quite a bit of
money and there are many that are incredibly aesthetically pleasing. I’m
an avid user of pocket notebooks, but not really much of a
collector, but this friend’s interest in this hobby convinced me to
start hunting down a few rarer notebooks that were aesthetically
pleasing to me (namely, the Field Notes National Crops edition).
Another example: several of my friends enjoy playing tabletop role
playing games. They get together with several friends once a week at one
of their houses and sit down together to play a pretty imaginative
game. I don’t actively play any games, but several years ago their happy
talk about these games convinced me to start getting interested in
them. I wound up purchasing a few core rulebooks for various games and a
big bundle of books from another person I knew who was moving away.
Now, I have enjoyed reading these books, but have I played more than a session or two before acquiring them? Nope.
Here are a few strategies I’ve learned to combat this tendency.
First, I’ve learned to let my friend be the leader and teacher in the hobby.
While I might find their hobby interesting, that doesn’t mean it has to
become a major hobby of my own. With the pocket notebooks, I could
easily just admire my friend’s collection and perhaps trade with her on
occasion to get a pretty edition (while buying a few cheap ones for my
own actual non-collecting use). With the tabletop role playing games, I
could simply accept an invitation to their game nights. In both cases,
I’m letting my friends do the leading and just following along with
Second, I’ve learned to recognize that I only really have time for a few hobbies in my life.
If I want to actually enjoy hobbies with any depth, they need to have
some time devoted to them. If I keep engaging in whatever hobbies my
friends are into, I’m either going to have so many hobbies that I don’t
really enjoy any of them or I’m going to have to drop other hobbies that I really enjoy and am already invested in.
Finally, I let them be my facilitator. Often, when my friends see that I have a fledgling interest in something that they’re passionate about, they’ll want
to get me more involved. I’ve had friends give me all kinds of items
related to their hobby in order to encourage my own interest. This lets
me dabble a bit in their hobby without fully adopting it – and the
expenses that go with it – as my own.
Mostly, I recognize that I can be interested in their hobby without adopting it as my own hobby.
Problem Area #2: Board GamesI love playing board games that either make me think or spur my
imagination. I’m a member of two different board gaming “groups” that
meet regularly at various places to play games and Sarah and I host
semi-regular game nights at our house. I get a lot of enjoyment out of
sitting down at a table with like-minded people, enjoying some
conversation, and playing a game together that requires all of us to
stimulate our brain cells.
The problem for me is that this hobby encourages buying. I’ll hear
about a game or see one in a store and my mind will often envision
myself playing it with my children or with my friends. I’ll think that a
particular friend will really like this game and I want to play that
game with that friend, so I’ll end up buying it. Sometimes, I’ll just be
interested in a game myself and want to purchase it for purely selfish
Thankfully, there are a few things that I do to combat this tendency.
First, I try to avoid duplicating the collections of friends.
If a friend of mine has a game, there’s little reason for me to own it,
too. I can just ask that friend to bring it to a game night and we’ll
play it together, which is most of the fun anyway.
Second, I bend the focus more towards playing games rather than acquiring them. For instance, I made it a personal goal in 2015 to play thirty of my favorite games fifteen times each. That’s a lot of playing and it doesn’t really leave a lot of room for acquiring
new games. That’s by design – I want my focus to be on playing the
games above all else because that’s where the joy comes from.
Third, I engage in swapping. I do a lot of board
game trading with other people who are into the hobby. This enables me
to try a lot of games without much additional expense. These swaps
sometimes happen by mail (the advantage here is that I have a lot more
to choose from) and sometimes happen person-to-person (the advantage
here is that there’s no shipping and no wondering what exactly the other
person will send).
Finally, I try to avoid visiting places that spur my purchases.
Stores that cater to the board game hobby can be very tempting to me.
My best strategy for minimizing spending is to simply avoid those stores
if at all possible. I do have one group that meets in the open table
space at one such store, so I really have to be on guard with that
Problem Area #3: BooksBooks have been a constant financial distraction for me since I had
enough money as a child to visit the nearest bookstore and spend the
money I received for my birthday. I love reading. I love holding a book
in my hand. I love getting lost in a good story. I love walking away
from a book with a lot to think about. I love talking about books. I
love learning something new from a book. I have since I was a young
child and I suspect I always will.
Of course, books are a purchasable item that, in recent years, has become very easy to spend money on. With the advent of quick ordering via Amazon and particularly with instant delivery on the Kindle, it is really easy for me to order books almost without thinking about it.
I’ve had to develop some strategies to deal with this.
First, I manually turned off one-click ordering and removed my credit card information from Amazon. I still can
order books from there, but I have to manually enter my card number to
do so. Typically, this is more than enough to give me time to rethink
the purchase. Similarly, I’ve learned not to carry my credit card into a
Second, I discovered my local library and the many offerings they have.
These offerings range from the obvious paperback and hardcover books to
other things such as book clubs and electronic books. The best part?
All of it is free. I find myself checking out books and taking my
children there for book readings quite often. Right now, in fact, we
have eleven books from the library spread out around our house, with at least one for each person in our home.
Third, I focus on reading rather than collecting books.
I’ve learned to twist the pride of having a bookshelf full of books
into pride in having a long list of books I’ve read. It is far better to
have read a book and enjoyed it than to have a book on your shelf that
you’ve never read. I do love having copies of books I refer to or
re-read often, but that’s actually a relatively small number of books.
Finally, I swap books, too. I like using PaperBackSwap
as a tool for trading books through the mail, but I also get a ton of
value out of just swapping books with friends. Swapping with friends
adds to the social experience of books, because if we’ve both read a
book, it gives us something to talk about and bond over.
Problem Area #4: Gourmet FoodsAs many of you know, I love to cook at home. I’m pretty good at
cooking a cheap meal, but I also have a strong urge to expand that meal
by adding high-end ingredients to it.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Whenever I make eggplant Parmesan, a
recipe I quite enjoy, I have a basic recipe that’s pretty inexpensive,
especially if we have eggplant in our garden. However, there’s a
temptation to substitute the shakeable Parmesan cheese that we often use
for a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that I have to grate myself
right before the meal. That cheese is fragrant, delicious… and much,
much more expensive.
Almost every recipe I make has at least some opportunity for that
kind of ingredient upgrade. I might be tempted to turn a tomato sauce
out of season into something fresh made with out-of-season fresh
tomatoes (read: expensive). I’ll use fresh herbs instead of dried ones.
I’ll decide to pop open a bottle of wine from our wine rack just to add a
bit of flavor to a dish.
How do I get around this? Here are some strategies that I use.
First, I try to save “special” meals for rare or special occasions.
There’s no real need to jazz up an ordinary “spaghetti night” meal with
high-end ingredients. Instead, we save the special ingredients for
times when we’re trying to make something really special. This keeps us
from inflating the cost of most of our routine meals.
Second, most of our favorite recipes are already pretty cheap.
The vast majority of meals we make at home are composed of low-cost
ingredients that aren’t going to break our budget. If we do decide to
improve an ingredient or two, we’re often just moving the cost of the
meal up from about $1 per person to $3 or $4 per person. By sticking to
cheap backbone meals, we reduce the impact of ingredient upgrades.
Third, I often don’t have time for some of my crazier meal plans.
More than once, I’ve planned for an elaborate meal that seems like it
would be wonderfully fun to prepare and eat, only to find that life
interferes and puts those plans on hold. Instead, I wind up making
something simple using part of the ingredients. I need to be very sure of my time commitments when making an elaborate meal – and that means fewer elaborate meals.
Finally, I involve my children in meal planning.
This keeps me from doing anything too crazy with the ingredients. They
like simpler meals for the most part and so when they’re involved some
of the crazier ideas and ingredient alterations stay in check. After
all, when I ask them what meals they’d like off of a list of options,
spaghetti and macaroni often go straight to the top and I’m admonished
not to make them “crazy.”
Problem Area #5: My ChildrenThat last point leads directly into an area where I find myself making a number of spending mistakes: my children.
Before I get started here, I should point out that I have no interest
in actually spoiling my children. I don’t spontaneously buy them things
that they want at the store and so on. We do try to ensure that they
have a nice Christmas and birthday, but we aren’t in the habit of buying
them things all the time.
The “money sink” when it comes to our children is for things like
after-school programs, educational opportunities, college savings, and
so on. It is often very tempting for us to sign them up for everything and let them try out lots of different activities. The problem is that it adds up to a ton of expense.
I tend to have a very big weak spot for things like this. I want my
children to have every growth opportunity available to them and that can
add up to a huge expense if I’m not careful.
Here are four things I do to keep that tendency in check.
First, I remind myself of the value of free time.
Free time gives children an opportunity to learn how to entertain and
educate themselves. If you overbook a child, you never give them a
chance to learn how to battle boredom and structure free time. This is a
valuable lesson, one that can make all the difference in their future personal and professional lives.
Second, I recognize that my children have shifting interests.
While it’s really tempting to jump on a fledgling interest and sign
them up for something expensive related to it, that’s usually a mistake.
That interest can easily fade over the coming months, leaving them
subscribed to something they’re not enjoying and leaving us paying a
bill for something that isn’t really providing us with any value.
Third, there are many opportunities to explore interests at home without activities.
Sarah and I are imaginative and skilled enough to encourage our
children to learn and explore without pouring out money into supplies
and activities. Between the internet, the library, our respective
skills, and the odds and ends we have around the house or can borrow
from friends, our children have the ability to dabble in lots of things
without hitting our wallets very hard.
Finally, I ask myself who really wants these things.
I grew up in an environment where I didn’t have a lot of access to
organized activities of any kind, really. My life was filled with a lot
of unstructured free time, which was good in some ways but bad in
others. When I see an interesting activity, the part of me that really
wanted those opportunities as a kid speaks up and tries to convince me
how incredible that opportunity is. The focus shouldn’t be on me and what I wish I could have had, but on my children and what will help them grow.
Four Additional General Strategies for Keeping These in CheckIn addition to the tactics I mentioned above, here are five additional things I do that help with all of these spending weaknesses.
First, I keep myself aware of them. I know
that I’m prone to making bad spending decisions in these areas. I make
an effort to remind myself of those mistakes as often as I can so that
I’m always aware of them. For example, if I keep myself mindful of the
fact that I’m particularly tempted to spend unnecessary money when I
visit hobby stores or book stores, I’m much more likely to not spend money when I’m there.
Second, I budget some free spending for myself – but not too much.
I allot myself a certain amount per month in our budget for spending on
whatever I please. I usually put aside part of it for one or two big
events a year, but the rest can be spent on whatever I choose. I’m
pretty good at keeping track of this amount, though I did have some
slippage a few months when I didn’t count my Kindle purchases.
Third, I try to avoid “information” sources that tempt me to buy new things in those areas of weakness.
If a website or a television program is geared strongly toward buying
new things in a particular area of interest, I’ve learned to largely
Finally, I’ve learned to ask to borrow first.
Instead of just rushing out to buy something connected to one of my own
interests, I’ll ask my friends that share those hobbies if they have the
item in question instead, and then I’ll borrow the item from them
instead of buying it myself. I make sure to be very open to lending my
items out to friends as well so that it’s not just a one way street. The
best part? Such swapping among friends, if done well and with respect,
usually ends up cementing and building a friendship.
Final ThoughtsIf you take nothing else away from this article, take this: we all have areas where we make spending mistakes.
All of us. The real key is to figure out what those mistakes are and
adopt some strategies to make sure that the spending is well under
Finding the missteps is the easy part. Just dig through your bank and
credit card statements for places where you spent a lot of money on the
same types of things and ask yourself why you’re spending that money.
Breaking that routine – or at least putting some constraints on it –
is the real challenge, but it’s one that’s well worth doing. If you do
it right, you don’t lose anything worthwhile about what you love while
also establishing a great deal of control over your financial future.
- The Simple Dollar